Kirschner: direct instruction 'not just for dinosaurs’

Speaking at the World Education Summit, the renowned cognitive psychologist backs more traditional teaching approaches

Simon Lock

Professor Paul Kirschner: Remote learning has shown the value of Direct Instruction

In the past 12 months, areas of education have evolved faster than ever before – from remote lessons to virtual parents' evenings.

But while new ideas have been adopted at pace, for Paul Kirschner, emeritus professor of educational psychology at the Open University of the Netherlands, this period of disruption has also brought some of the most tried and tested approaches to the fore.

“I think [remote learning] shone a light on the necessity of good, explicit direct instruction,” said Kirchner, speaking at the World Education Summit on Tuesday.

“I think more and more teachers are coming to the conclusion that explicit instruction isn't a regressive approach to instruction only propagated by dinosaurs and people who hate children,”

Direct instruction isn't a regressive approach

Speaking to Tes after his keynote session at the World Education Summit, the author and educationalist said he saw the period of school closures as having shown both teachers and students what really works when it comes to learning.

“[Teachers] have seen that [direct instruction] actually works and that is efficient and effective. The kids themselves are screaming, ‘We want more structure, we want more guidance, we’re tired of doing it ourselves and alone and in trying to figure it out.'


Watch: In conversation with Paul Kirschner 


Of course, remote learning has reignited a lot of debate within the world of cognitive science, especially between those who favour more traditional approaches to education and those who support more child-centred, progressive methods – and the latter have pointed to students who have excelled as evidence that independent learning has been beneficial.

Kirschner disagrees, though – he sees the period of home learning as having shown the need for more structure.

“Kids at school aren’t capable of self-regulating their own learning,” he said. “When they try to discover things, they get lost.

“In normal in-school education, this lack of ability to self-regulate one's own learning is a problem. But this inability in an online situation is actually very deadly for learning.”

This realisation, he said, has forced some teachers to return to more traditional approaches, but that doesn't mean to say that teaching becomes one-dimensional.

“I see a lot of teachers who are kind of getting away from the so-called progressive. I think it's become more acceptable to think that explicit instruction is good instruction. And there's not a dirty word," he said.

“It's a very rich menu of things that you can do. It's not just giving a lecture in the class, and then giving homework. So it is very rich and multi-dimensional."

How learning happens

So what else has this period of teaching highlighted? Kirschner has recently written a book with Dr Carl Hendrick, How Learning Happens, which gives an overview of education research that the pair see as the most important in the past 60 years.

Given that it was written before the pandemic, Tes asked about which pieces of research he deemed to be particularly important for teachers right now, in light of the past 12 months.

He pointed to chapters of the book that cover things like cognitive load, highlighting the fact that it is important “to minimise the load on one's working memory. Especially when they're alone, and they have no actual help when they need it".

Kirschner also referred to the fourth part of the book, in which he looks at the role of assessment, retrieval practice and how to give good feedback.

“I think those chapters are as important, if not more important, in the situation that we're in now than they were in the normal face-to-face setting.”

Professor Paul Kirschner was speaking at the World Education Summit. Tes is the official media partner for the event

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Simon Lock

Simon Lock

Simon Lock is Tes senior digital editor

Find me on Twitter @simon_lock_

Latest stories